The last week, or in to a certain degree the last few weeks in the Middle East were without major events, as only this part of the world is also preparing to close this year. Usually these are the times when major shifts take place behind the curtains and the groundwork for major realignment take place. In this instance many, seemingly minor events could have been chosen for our topic for this week. The debate over an agreement between the Turkish and the universally most recognized Libyan government about the separation of maritime borders, which not only caused worries in Greece and Egypt, but renewed the American-Russian rivalry about the faith of Libya as well.
This week also witnessed the Algerian presidential elections, the first ones since the fall of Bū Ṭaflīqa and his circle holding on to power for twenty years. As we dealt with it, it might usher in a new era in the Algerian politics, a matter of great concern for all of its neighbors. By all indications ‘Abd al-Mağīd Tabbūn won, yet the true impact is far from clear, with relatively low participation, and it is still early to judge which way Algiers will shift.
There is a remarkable diplomatic activity in the Gulf as well. In one hand, there is a noticeable Omani activity to heal the wounds between the two shores and bring about direct Saudi-Irani negotiations. This could bring an end, at least temporarily to the steady escalation since early summer. On the other hand there are strong signals that Qatar might mend fences with Saudi, and that can have serious consequences both to the Saudi-Emirati and the Qatari-Turkish relations. And there are rumors of American pressures behind the scenes supporting this current, discreetly sidelining such hardliners like Muḥammad ibn Zāyid in Abū Zabī. This complex web shall be our topic for next week, as hopefully by the aftermath of the 40. Gulf Summit more will be revealed.
And of course the results of the protests in Lebanon and Iraq are still pending, as both governments fell. But the new constellations haven’t solidified yet. Therefore however likely is the result, it is still early to evaluate without the new equation.
But there was another event more than a week ago in Morocco, far from all the discussed topics, which might not have attracted much attention, but suddenly revealed far reaching ties all over the region. Secretary of the State Mike Pompeo visited Rabat on 5 December to meet with high raking Moroccan officials and even King VI. Muḥammad. He arrived directly from Portugal where he held meeting with the Portuguese leadership, he also held a special meeting with Israeli PM Netanyahu only hours before leaving to Rabat. While most of the discussions went smoothly, both the press conference with his Moroccan counterpart Nāṣir Būrīṭa and his audience with the king was canceled in the last second. While from both the American and the Moroccan side this was downplayed as nothing extraordinary, both the Arab and the Israeli media created huge fumes around the matter. Someone was clearly hiding something and some form diplomatic maneuvering took place. The matter is only more mysterious as it after a week returned to where it came from: complete obscurity.
Why was the royal meeting canceled in the last second? Was really an attempt made to bring Morocco the recognition of Israel, or only the Israeli media tried to boost Netanyahu’s image as he failed once again to form a government? If indeed the Moroccans were upset, why did the meeting between Pompeo and the Director-General of the Moroccan State Security took two hours? These details are our topic for next week.
The background and what we know
It is important to point out that the Moroccan-American ties are not only traditionally strong, but also differ in nature from most of the American ties with the Arab countries. Rabat was one of the first countries in the world to recognize the United States after its war of independence. For which a whole museum is dedicated in Tangier. This relation steadily grew, and was exploited well after Morocco’s independence for the benefit of both sides. As countries like Algeria, Libya or Egypt all joined the pro-Soviet camp in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Morocco, quite the contrary pulled ever closer to the pro-Western camp. That, however, never meant such a financially based, absolute dependency on American support like so many examples of the Gulf or even Jordan.
These traditionally amicable relations started to improve and was built upon after 2001, when there was already a new leadership in Rabat after the late king II. Ḥasan. Morocco supported most of the endeavors of Washington and its Gulf allies, but always to a limit. Morocco always pursued its own policy and usually tried to stay away from the major disputes of the region. The growing Saudi-Emirati activity in North Africa already caused friction with Riyadh, but that did not really disturb the American-Moroccan ties. Rabat is one of the strongest supporters of Washington’s approaches in North Africa, most prominent amongst these is the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative, and that helped to provide support in a number of matters, including that of Western Sahara. Which seems to have recently taken a new approach. The last major step in this line was the fourth session of the American-Moroccan Strategic Dialogue only in this October, where Rabat’s role was highly praised by the Americans.
Pompeo’s visit came in this context, to boost the already strong connections. However, the fact that one of the fiercest American hawk was about to come to Rabat, and practically alone, casted some doubt about his mission. Was he about to come to gain more support against Iran, or to help to ease the tension between Riyadh and Rabat? Or would he have another agenda?
The official agenda, affirmed by all sides, was that Pompeo would conduct a two-days visit. First meeting with his Moroccan counterpart, a lengthy discussion with Director-General of the National Security, ‘Abd al-Laṭīf Ḥammūšī, and would close the trip with a meeting with King VI. Muḥammad. While the first part went on, the latter segment never took place.
Noticeable, however, that even before the visits there were wide-range suggestions that while the Moroccan side is only trying to keep up the cooperation and gain support to the Western Sahara policy only recently elevated to governmental policy level, Pompeo had his own agenda for the visit. To gain support by a relevant Arab state to pro-Israeli policies of this American administration. That needing now support for Netanyahu, but also such projects as the “deal of the century”, and which better way is to so that, than a recognition by yet another Arab state. That could inclusively solidify the former American gifts, like Jerusalem and the Ğulān, and now even green light to other land appropriation in the West Bank. And as recent news indicate, this current is not only ongoing, but also tied to the faith of Netanyahu.
After many accusations that the meeting was cancelled for Pompeo’s wish for a settlement with Israel, or at least for a meeting between Netanyahu and King VI. Muḥammad the State Department denied these claims. It affirmed that only bilateral questions were on the table, and nothing about Israel. Strange, however, that this denial came from the State Department and not from Pompeo, and at a time, when the State Secretary could have easily refuted such gossips. Yet, he still hasn’t reacted to the claims.
An Israeli trick?
Though the meeting was scheduled for months by than and the agenda was relatively clear, in the last second noticeable controversy was created around it. Before the meeting it was almost exclusively present in the Western media only, all emanating from Israeli, or pro-Israeli sources. The controversy was created by the fact Pompeo still negotiating in Portugal was suddenly visited by Netanyahu as something urgent came up, but there came now news of it. That automatically lead to guesses and rumors, whether Netanyahu’s visit might has more to do with Pompeo’s upcoming trip to Morocco. In that sense, as it was suggested, Pompeo would act as a courier, but also as a deal broker, delivering a message from Tel Aviv to open direct diplomatic relations and also on the American behalf trying to push this agenda. Knowing Pompeo, was he asked by Netanyahu for a mission like that he would not refuse a favor.
But why would Netanyahu push for such a move? Why is Morocco so important? In fact, that does not necessarily mean that Morocco was the prime target. Netanyahu, as several times we indicated, is not only in crisis himself, but his problems are exponentially growing. He already caused two swap-elections, which both times brought worse and worse result for him. Last time not even proved unable to form a government, but even lost his slight majority for his opponent. Since than, in November Israel’s attorney general indicted Netanyahu on corruption charges, which lead a number of his predecessors to jail. That danger already hung over Netanyahu for some time, and that lead him to open new warfronts in the region from Lebanon to Iraq, which is a usually successful strategy to secure elections victory. So far, however, this time it is less operational. That forced him to delegate substantial power and offices to his most feared far-right rivals, like Naftali Bennett, who became Defense Minister, and to elevate some rivals within his own party, like Israel Katz, now acting as Foreign Minister. While they are still very active in the war rhetoric, like the statements by Katz threatening Iran with a direct military strike, Netanyahu desperately needs some sort of tangible victory. Something, which goes beyond the usual threats, manipulations and suggestions, all part of a careful show making him look powerful and decisive. Something, which proves that he achieved something.
In that regard the American recognition of Jerusalem and the Ğulan as Israeli territories could serve useful, but these are insufficient. In one hand, because much of the Israeli society already considered these regions as their own, so it moves no significant public support, while on the other, it is still just a handful of countries, which took this step. Internationally this move is not only not approved, but even highly criticized. That is why Netanyahu recently suggested the incorporation of much of the West Bank, confiscating even more Palestinian lands for new settlers. In this climate, after the much anticipated “deal of the century” failed to materialize, opening diplomatic relations with any Arab country is a victory, regardless of the size and the direct economic benefit. Because no matter how close the ties are with the Gulf states have become in recent year, much due to Netanyahu himself, they still refrain from formal recognition.
This maneuver was present this year in Tunisia, which at the end saw the victory for a president strongly refusing formal recognition. Which does not necessarily mean that the former government, or some of the parties were not ready for political settlement with Tel Aviv. The same can be said about Morocco that though the general approach for the local Jewish community is not negative and there are certain ties between the Moroccan and the Israelis leadership, the state itself is strongly committed to the Palestinian cause. Any compromise in the matter would critically harm the monarchy’s standing, both internally and regionally.
However, seeing that almost exclusively the Israeli and the pro-Israeli media kept to story high on the agenda it is also possible that indeed nothing is true from the whole story. That Morocco was not about to discuss any Israeli related subject with Pompeo, and the whole thing is a media stunt to boost Netanyahu’s image and to shuffle the cards in the region. Which lives sensitive times now, as conditions are changing. Both in North Africa with new leaderships in Algeria and Tunisia, and new initiatives in Morocco, and both in Middle East as possibly the struggle in Gulf might come to a halt. In such context it was always part of the Israeli tactics to create, if only artificial, concern in the region and new divisions.
Certain details are, however, noticeable and still unaccounted for. First of all, by the official statement we now what was not the reason for the cancelled meeting between Pompeo and the Moroccan monarch, but that still does not answer what was. The official explanation is missing completely, only a vague statement was given that the conditions have changed. On the other hand, such an accusation is not too light in the Moroccan context for a number of reasons. Morocco still has a populous Jewish community, there is a substantial presence in the Israeli politics of Moroccan origin, and historically the relations were always rumored to be unofficial, yet good between the sides. Much like the role Oman plays and have always played in the matter, not being effected directly, but having an interest in mediation. However, recent years saw an escalation in the matter for the worse. As of April 2018 there were reports and even political alarms that Israel is enlisting and training Moroccans militarily and that there is a very substantial presence for the Israeli services in Morocco. Which now comes as a very alarming detail in this context.
What matters for Rabat.
Morocco ever since its independence sought to have good relations with the West, especially with France and the US. Partially counter the Algerian moves mostly viewed hostile, but also to obtain support and financial-technical aid for modernization. That venture was indeed successful retrospectively as for now Morocco is possibly the most developed and secure state of North Africa. In the same context the West saw great interest in having amicable ties with Morocco during the Cold War to dissuade regional states from closing to Moscow with the progress in Morocco.
These ties somewhat lost importance after 1990, but was rapidly revived after 2001, as Rabat was eager to assist the US to once again gain favor. Which worked well, once again. If in nothing else, the level of support and friendship by the West towards Rabat showed in the so called “Arab Spring”, which had its effect in Morocco, but could reach a peaceful settlement and did not develop in a way like so many less fortunate states. And since than the royal palace steadily regained much of its influence, which hasn’t met much criticism in the West.
Since the counter-terrorist war in Mali and France’s new initiative in the matter to support the so called G5 in the Sahel, the regional states saw a renewed activity by the US and France. Which alarmed most of them and caused mixed reactions. Algeria, thought officially part of the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative, refrain from deeper cooperation in fear of foreign penetration. Morocco, as traditionally, proved to be a very cooperative partner to keep its regional advantage. In other words, while all concerned suspect something malevolent behind the counterterrorist pretexts, Morocco chose to play along. That showed in recent years in Morocco’s stance towards the Syrian matter, which was absolutely supportive for the war on the Syrian government.
And some of the matters posed by the Americans come handy. Like that of American wish for bigger Arab support against Iran, which is not a particularly strong worry for Rabat, but the anti-Shia claims are well exploitable in the internal political front. These, and the many similar matters, like that of Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf are not particularly important things for Morocco, but much rather the good intelligence cooperation with France and the US, to counter other states’ maneuver, to keeps Rabat’s advantage on them, and to prevent in such a way any Western threat. Also, by keeping explicitly constructive relations with the US the Saudi-Emirati-Qatari penetration can be countered, or at least kept under control, not letting Morocco to be dragged into their own disputes.
That supportive role, however, can never go that far in humiliation as it does with a number of Gulf states. Therefore, if indeed Pompeo had a secondary, Israeli related agenda, than it is absolutely feasible and logical that Rabat would have reacted in such a way. Playing along against Iran, with which Morocco does not have strong ties anyways is one thing, but a settlement with Israel is something of a completely different magnitude.
Changing North Africa.
It is also important to keep in mind that North Africa is rapidly changing, which has an impact on all. As we dealt with it in a number of issues, Tunisia and Algeria are transforming, though still haven’t achieved such a solid internal state as before 2011. Libya, which soon shall be our topic in detail, has first became a no-state, and recently the scene of the most fierce regional rivalry. Only recently Turkey vowed to send troops there to support its own agenda.
There is a never ending war in Mali and Nigeria, and the under the counterterrorist pretexts the West tried to reassert its influence and counter Chinese penetration to the region. All these details indicate instability, which might foreshadow bigger regional confrontations. That indicates a pattern where one has to close all pending folders and brace for future crises.
Such steps are clearly visible by Morocco. The first tangible victory came in February 2017, when after 33 years Morocco was reaccepted in the African Union, which caused a severe blow to the Polisario and its supporters. However, the matter of Western Sahara was clearly worked on and not only by cutting ties to the Polisario, but also by presenting a viable alternative. Thought it was diplomatically proposed for some time, the idea of regional autonomy for Western Sahara was recently elevated to national policy level by the King.
And that is not the only level, where Rabat is hastily trying to close old problems. In the last few years VI. Muḥammad called upon the Algerians to end the “adversary” between them and restructure relations in a more amicable way. As a token of good will the borders were proposed to be reopened by Morocco, and there were indications for substantial and constructive debates between the sides. Recently, as another token of good will, the Moroccan monarch congratulated to the newly elected Algerian President Tabbūn – though he is likely to face a second round – and used the opportunity to call for a fresh start. All these steps were so far met with cold restrain from the Algerian side, way too busy with internal troubles. Tabbūn himself is not a promising person in this regard, as in the campaign he had set the precondition that first Rabat has to apologize for the circumstances that lead to the closure of the border.
All these steps by Morocco, though in a diplomatic way, indicate a very similar pattern as the massive army buildup and naval development by Algeria in recent years. A brace for impact. Consolidation much promoted by Rabat now, and unofficially even by the Algerians, could a very effective step in this direction, and could potentially bring stabilizing results to the region.
That is why Morocco is so eager to engage the US in a strategic dialogue and to receive even the most hawkish elements, like Pompeo. But that might also be a reason why Tel Aviv sees an interest to disturb this trajectory, a saw seeds of discontent in the region. If not directly for Netanyahu now, that can be exploited in the region one day.